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When and how do politically extreme candidates get punished at the polls?

In 2016, Tausanovitch and Warshaw performed an analysis “using the largest dataset to date of voting behavior in congressional elections” and found:

Ideological positions of congressional candidates have only a small association with citizens’ voting behavior. Instead, citizens cast their votes “as if” based on proximity to parties rather than individual candidates. The modest degree of candidate-centered spatial voting in recent Congressional elections may help explain the polarization and lack of responsiveness in the contemporary Congress.

Then in 2018, Andrew Hall and Daniel Thompson wrote:

Combining a regression discontinuity design in close primary races with survey and administrative data on individual voter turnout, we find that extremist nominees—as measured by the mix of campaign contributions they receive—suffer electorally, largely because they decrease their party’s share of turnout in the general election, skewing the electorate towards their opponent’s party. The results help show how the behavioral and institutional literatures can be connected. For our sample of elections, turnout appears to be the dominant force in determining election outcomes, but it advantages ideologically moderate candidates because extremists appear to activate the opposing party’s base more than their own.

Sean McElwee brought those two papers to my attention (along with this) and asked how they can be reconciled. McElwee writes:

Voters, who can’t distinguish ideology decided whether or not to vote in generals based on the extremism of their opponent (measured in a way that may or may not actually reflect an extreme voting record).

Seems like there must be another mechanism for the Hall and Thompson data?

My reply: I’m not actually up on this literature. Can I blog this and we can see what comments show up?

And so I did, and here you are. I haven’t thought much on these issues since writing that paper, Moderation in the pursuit of moderation is no vice: The clear but limited advantages to being a moderate for Congressional elections, with Jonathan Katz, over ten years ago.


  1. yyw says:

    If the first paper did not consider turnout, then the two papers did not contradict each other.

  2. Hebbers says:

    … what is the formal PoliticalScience definition of a politically Extreme candidate?

    … what are the core political principles of a political Moderate?

    • Andrew says:


      Being extreme or moderate can be defined in different ways, but in this sort of setting it’s defined relative to some distribution of positions of voters. So there are no core principles of a moderate, or for that matter of an extremist of left or right. A moderate would be defined as someone whose positions on some set of issues are close, on average, to the average position of the voters. For more on this, you could take a look at chapter 8 of Red State Blue State.

  3. Jake says:

    Hall 2015: Extremists do worse in the general.

    Hall and Thompson 2018: Extremists do worse because the outparty increases turnout. (Note that this doesn’t contradict Tausanovitch and Warshaw, because it’s about turnout, not vote choice.)

    Why do extremists do worse in the general if voters don’t know anything (citation: hundreds of studies)? The most plausible mechanism is the one Hall 2015 looks into at the end of the paper. Extremists get way less funding from corporations and trade association PACs. Other research (e.g., Hassell 2018) suggests extremists also get less funding from party-based sources.

  4. It’s not like we’re talking about large effect sizes (at least not uniformly–Hall 2015 found a smaller effect for Democrats, but you have to find that in the appendix…) that explain a lot of variation. And there are measurement issues regarding “extremeness.” I would suggest that if the conversation is moving on to looking for mechanisms and heterogenous effects that it also consider revisiting the above issues in the process.

  5. jim says:

    I dont see a contradiction. The fact that people don’t generally recognize or care that much about ideology for a *typical* doesn’t imply that wont for a candidate with extreme positions. And the fact that they recognize extreme positions doesn’t imply that they care about *which* extreme the candidate espouses.

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